To a borderline-mindboggling extent, Girl in Progress actively discourages thought. Patricia Riggen’s film believes it’s being clever by overtly discussing its thematic structure through the story of Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez), a teenager who, frustrated with her absentee single mom, Grace (Eva Mendes), decides to take a page from her English class lesson and actively live out a clichéd coming-of-age story. That process, which she discusses out loud ad infinitum, involves first positioning herself as a goody-two-shoes nerd, and then sabotaging her future by alienating heavyset best friend Tavita (Raini Rodriguez), hanging out with the wrong crowd, and losing her virginity to the local bad boy (Richard Harmon).
Such cutesiness is obnoxious enough, but it’s compounded by the more basic idiocy of this plan, which is made even stupider by the fact that Ansiedad is supposedly bright. Still, making matters far, far more insufferable are the regular classroom interludes in which Ansiedad’s teacher, Ms. Armstrong (Patricia Arquette), defines and discusses, in order, “coming of age stories,” “rites of passage,” “epiphanies,” and finally, the nature of “adult vs. child” tensions—a recurring device that Riggen wields with such hand-holding gracelessness that Girl in Progress operates like a training-wheels melodrama for genre-uneducated tweens. Ansiedad’s path to womanhood is mirrored by that of Grace, who rebelled against her own never-around mom at 17 (lookout, incoming generational behavior parallels!), and now scrapes by as a waitress at a clam shack—where, so help us all, they’re holding a contest for most responsible employee—while continuing a clearly unwise affair with married gynecologist Dr. Harford (Matthew Modine).
Girl in Progress’s scenarios are clichéd through and through, and Mendes and Ramirez don’t manage a single subtle moment between them. Yet it’s Hiram Martinez’s script that truly sinks the action into abject corniness, partaking in solitary tears down cheeks, hysterical confrontations between friends and over-the-top humiliations from enemies, and, ultimately, Ansiedad pointing out to Dr. Harford and his frigid wife that their son needs glasses, a fact that she can glean from his writing with his nose pressed against the page, but which they, as befitting all adults in this mushy saga, are too self-absorbed to notice. A potential romance between Grace and busboy Mission (Eugenio Derbez) is as phony as the climactic suggestion that one of the main characters might actually die, since what the film really has in mind is just an everyone-grows-up happily-ever-after that, naturally, it chooses to spell out via Arquette’s narration, which is so obvious it’s downright juvenile.